Dealing with suffering

BAMHappy Vajrayogini Day 🙂 This transcendent Buddha of Wisdom is all about helping us destroy our suffering at its root, in the course of one short lifetime.

We don’t like suffering, at least I don’t. Strange how much time we spend, then, dwelling on our own suffering each day.

Geshe Kelsang has said it is meaningless to think about our own suffering unless we want to develop renunciation, the wish for permanent freedom from all suffering and its causes. Dwelling on our own problems out of the context of renunciation can just lead to more self-cherishing. We tend to bat away one problem at a time, which is a bit exhausting and overwhelming. This is one reason why we need genuine renunciation, a compassion for ourselves that wants to be free from the whole ocean of samara, not just one wave at a time.

My friend K went to ER on Wednesday morning – waited 7 hours to be seen, all the time experiencing attacks of agony from kidney stones. She said the main thing she learned was that temporary cessations from particular sufferings, as Geshe Kelsang puts it, were indeed not good enough. In between the bouts of vomiting she’d experience temporary relief, and for the first few hours she though each time, “Phew, that’s it.” She said she even forgot quickly about the pain, thought she was free. But by 11 at night, experience had shown her that this short respite was just the precursor to another pain attack, and that she needed permanent freedom.

Keeping suffering in context

prison and freedomInterestingly, we can be overwhelmingly sad about any given daily mental or physical suffering, but when we manage to view that in the bigger existential context of the four noble truths and develop renunciation our mind becomes lighter and happier, already on the side of liberation, on the side of the solution.

Imagine you’d been born in a prison but had no idea, and you spent your life complaining about the prison food, the bars on the window that ruined your view, the rough and annoying people around you, the cold showers …. You tried to fix these problems as they arose, with greater or lesser success, but generally the whole experience was frustrating. Then someone comes along and says, “Your actual problem is that you are in prison. Until you get out, you are going to experience prison problems, whatever you do.” Buddha was like that when he pointed out the truth of suffering, the first of the four noble truths, likening samsara to a prison. It was not to depress us that he explained how we suffer from mental and physical pain every single frigging day of our lives, but to energize us to break out of the prison of suffering, whose walls and prison guards are our own delusions and negative actions.

hunger gamesWe’ve been enslaved by a master race of delusions since beginningless time. Katniss may be cool, but never mind the Hunger Games (a nod to the 4 nieces who told me to read/watch it) – that’s small fry. It’s time for us all to really rebel, shooting the flaming arrow of wisdom into our ignorance by realizing the ultimate nature of things, the mere absence of all the things we normally see.

Life is short

As Geshe Kelsang says in How to Understand the Mind p 275:

“Normally we believe that solving the suffering and problems of our present life is most important, and we dedicate our whole life for this purpose.”

But the problems of this life are very short-lived – if we die tomorrow, those problems end tomorrow.

I was talking with a friend over Xmas who was saying he wanted to win the lottery. I replied, “Don’t we all, but all the same it won’t solve our problems for very long.” He disagreed, regaling me with the varying levels of debt he and his family are in, and how much more wonderful life will be when those debts are paid off, how they’ll be free. Yes, perhaps, (I might have said if I’d thought of it at the time) — but not if you pay your debts off on Tuesday and then die on Wednesday.

Springboard to freedom
flicking off a rock
Quick, learn to fly!

Far more serious are the problems we are carrying deep inside us in the form of delusions and negative karma, as these undercurrents will flow into our countless future lives, constantly churning up new sufferings. If we use this short, very precious human life just to bat away at our immediate problems, I was thinking it’s a bit like using a million dollars to pay for a bag of salt & vinegar crisps at the airport because we feel peckish and happen to like Walkers. Precious human lives packed full with opportunity don’t come out of nowhere – we may not remember, but we must have spent a huge amount of time and effort in previous lives creating all the causes for this one, our potential springboard to freedom. Do we want to squander all that trying to solve the problems of just this life when we can use it in advance to solve the problems of all our future destinations?

Same for others

I think we can use a similar line of reasoning for developing compassion. Let’s say someone we love has been diagnosed with a horrible perhaps incurable illness. We can’t bear it, and we want them to be free from it; but we are not a doctor and, even if we were, we cannot cure them. So we are unhappy, the suffering seems overwhelming, seems to be just there, just sitting there. If however we transform that simple wish for them to be free from this particular illness into actual compassion for not just this sickness but all their sicknesses forever, already our mind is lifting.

Vajrayogini
What would Vajrayogini do?!

Because it is true, isn’t it, that if we want our mother, say, to be free from her neck pain today, we would also like her still to be free from it next week, and the week after, and the week after that … and, if we stop to think further, we want her to be free from ANY physical illness and mental suffering now and forever too. And if we understand that for her to be free from suffering forever she needs to be free of the causes of suffering, and we develop that wish for her, our mind becomes the very peaceful, solution-oriented, pure, even blissful mind of genuine compassion. Try it and see, and report back in the comments if you would. (Doesn’t mean of course that we don’t also try to alleviate her immediate neck pain eg, with Tiger Balm patches.) 

Spread that out to all our kind mothers and our mind gradually becomes vast and powerful, developing first into universal compassion and then the compassion of a Buddha, like Vajrayogini, that actually has the power to protect living beings from suffering.

 

 

 

Who do you want to be when you die? ~ rebirth part 6

to see the world in a drop of dewWhen we gain insight into the continuum of our mind — and that death is the permanent separation of the mind and the body, not the death of consciousness — this realization expands our horizons and is very joyful, liberating.

People say that they don’t want to think about death, “I don’t want to think about leaving everything!” But we won’t even notice that we’ve left everything! Do you even notice that last night’s dream has come and gone? Do any of you miss last week’s dream? Do any of you miss any of your past lives at the moment? Attachment is all about, “I’ve got to keep having it, I’ll not be happy without it.” But as soon as attachment has gone, there’s nothing there to hang on to — it’s gone and we’ve forgotten it.

We all want to be happy and free from suffering, all the time. In which case, the only thing to do is to train the mind. Tweaking this body is a fool’s game — no matter how much Botox we inject into this thing, it is not going to last. It’s not going to look any prettier as we get older. It’s not going to serve us any better as time goes by. Despite years and years of devotion to our body – giving it pizza, washing it countless times, worrying about its slightest wrinkles, spending days and weeks (if you add it up) in front of the mirror, lugging it around all day, buying it expensive plane tickets – our body will betray us in the end.

Our body is an object of so much inappropriate attention. So much attachment, so much aversion, so much self cherishing, so much angst, worry, obsession, and time wasted goes into just thinking about these bodies. At the end of the day this body completely lets us down, becoming an inanimate lump of flesh that others cannot wait to get rid of. If we are relating to our body as ourselves, what does that make us – a lump of meat?!

Shantideva
Shantideva

As Shantideva, a great Indian Master who never minced his words, said, we are not so different to an animated corpse. Why is my body animated right now? When I die it will just be laying there and people will go, “Yuck.” When someone we have loved for 50 years dies, and we see them lying there, we know it is not them, at that point it is obvious. Why? Because they have gone. The body they inhabited is there the same as when they were alive, but it is now missing an essential ingredient. What animates the body? It is awareness, it is consciousness, it is life. When we die, this body that we invest so much energy and angst into, becomes “What was all that about?!” So much wasted time.

I’m not suggesting you all stop showering, by the way — we look after our body, of course, but rather as an ambulance driver looks after his ambulance the best he can, even when it is the worse for wear, seeing this body as a vehicle in which we can make a lot of spiritual progress and help others.

There is a powerful parallel scene in the movie Schindler’s List that has always struck me as the Bodhisattva way to look after our own body. Oskar Schindler and Amon Goeth are both grooming themselves meticulously for a party, preparing to impress. But Goeth is seething with pride and self-absorption, whereas Schindler is making himself presentable with the view only to save others.

At the moment our mind and body are connected. Our body is like our vehicle or, if you like, our overcoat, so we need to keep it healthy and presentable; but it’s not where the real action is. Infinitely more important is the life of our mind.

Also, don’t take this to mean that you have to always forget that your body is there! It will remind us often enough. I’m talking about not relating to the body out of inappropriate attention and delusions that come from identifying with it as being who we are, when it is only part of who we are. As it inevitably gets older, and the bodies around it get older, we will experience nothing but loss and suffering for example, if we exaggerate its importance. We can enjoy it and its sense pleasures without grasping. We can learn not to cling so tightly to it when it is sick. We don’t need to worry so much about what others think when they look at our body.  This is a work in progress but starts with the recognition that we are not just bodies.

If we understand the nature of consciousness then we really get a sense of who we are. Then we get a sense of who we can become.

seeds are no small thingAs we go through the teachings of the Lamrim, or the stages of the path, we start off with this special initial scope, setting our sights beyond the vanishing appearances of this life, thinking about countless future lives. Within this we also understand karma, that everything we do resonates into the future as seeds and potentials carried in our consciousness from life to life, the only luggage we are going to take with us. Therefore, we need to practice pure behavior and pack the causes for happiness, not suffering, for our future lives.

As we journey further along the path, we understand that we need to be in a state where we never taken any uncontrolled rebirth ever again. We start thinking about the problems of our delusions and particularly how to get rid of our ignorance, which is what is keeping us trapped in the uncontrolled cycle of life. At this point we are identifying with a being of intermediate scope, or middling scope. That is who we are.

We don’t stop there. Thinking,

“I am just one person, one traveler. Everybody is a traveler forced to cycle through death, bardo, and rebirth over and over again. My friends my dog, everybody is caught and I need to help them.”

Our samsara's cagemind gets even bigger. Our sense of being, of self, of who we are, is growing bigger and bigger. Geshe Kelsang uses this word “growing” – we grow from a being of initial scope, to middling scope, to great scope, namely the Mahayana. We become a Bodhisattva, literally an “enlightenment being” – someone who has decided to realize their complete potential for enlightenment so that they can guide all the other travelers to the same state.

So that’s the spiritual path. It all hinges on our understanding of who we are, which in turn hinges on our understanding of what life is, which in turn hinges on our understanding of our own beginningless and endless consciousness.

(This is the last part of the articles on rebirth — all of them can be found together here.)